Trying to pick the winner of a golf tournament is about as easy as finding the vermouth in the martini of a suburban housewife. Week to week on the PGA tour there must be at least 100 players capable of outscoring each other. For instance, who in the office pool had the gray-haired club pro Paul Harney at San Diego? Who had Bob Rosburg, with the baseball grip and the 11-year drought, at the Hope? Who had Grier Jones in Hawaii? Who had Jerry Heard in the Citrus? Who is Jerry Heard, anyhow? And though a lot of people pick Jeanne Weiskopf every week, how many seriously went for Tom in the Gleason at Fort Lauderdale? The answer to all these questions is a knowing, agreeable sigh. There are times, however, when a prediction seems somehow possible, whether it eventually comes true or not. And one of these occasions is upon us: Masters week. While there is a body of evidence that the Masters has become as hard to forecast as any other tournament, that evidence being the past five winners—Charles Coody, Billy Casper, George Archer, Bob Goalby and Gay Brewer—this has nothing to do with telling whoever will listen who ought to win.
Who ought to win every year, of course, is Jack Nicklaus. Who used to ought to win every year was Arnold Palmer. And who nearly ought to win every year was, and still is, Gary Player.
The reason Jack Nicklaus is supposed to win the Masters each April is because his game is particularly suited to the Augusta National course, a place of unlevel lies. Downhills, uphills, sidehills and such. At least it is for the normal human being. Nicklaus, however, can hit the tee shot far enough down into the valleys and up onto the plateaus that he can avoid many of the tilts and slants. This means his second shots are far easier to handle.
Also, Nicklaus' strength combined with the accuracy that has helped him become golf's alltime leading money winner has a tendency to make Augusta's par-5 holes more like long par-4s. There are four of them, the 2nd, 8th, 13th and 15th. Unless there happens to be a gale, or the course is soggy, Nicklaus can usually reach all four holes with his second shot, turning them into likely birdies and turning the course into a par 68—for him. At least it would seem to be a par 68. That he has birdied these par-5s only half the time since he last won the Masters suggests that they still present something of a challenge.
Beyond this apparent advantage, there is Nicklaus' competitive drive. Not since Ben Hogan has there been a golfer so consumed with winning major championships. He wants to win more big ones than Bobby Jones did, which means at least 14. To date, he has 11—three Masters, two U.S. Opens, two British Opens, two PGAs and two U.S. Amateurs.
It is appalling to consider how easily Nicklaus might already have reached his quota. Take last season. After he began the year by winning the PGA Championship, and leveled his sights on another modest project—taking the modern Grand Slam, or all four big ones in the same calendar year—he finished second in the Masters, second in the U.S. Open and fourth in the British Open.
In two of the last three he looked like a winner. In each case he was certain he would win. His game had been primed and polished for those events, and his attitude and concentration were perfect. Somehow, nevertheless, he lost. And, ironically, he lost on the very holes where he was expected to win, the par-5s.
Over the final nine holes at the Masters Nicklaus could have tied Coody with birdies at 13 and 15, which he reached in two that Sunday with four-irons. What would the odds be on Jack hitting a four-iron to a par-5 and not getting a birdie? Twice?
Then came the U.S. Open at Merion and the playoff with Lee Trevino. The par-5 that got him there was the 2nd hole. After taking a one-stroke lead on the 1st hole, he smashed a good drive, but he hit his second into a bunker and then left the third shot in there for a bogey. He was so stunned he promptly double-bogeyed the next hole, a par-3, Trevino. perhaps the best of the head-to-head competitors, was not about to let Nicklaus up, psychologically or any other way after that.
"He's the greatest player in the world," Trevino has said. "But I always like my chances one-on-one."